9to5: The Story Of A Movement


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

9to5: The Story Of A Movement
"Breezy and informative" | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who won an Oscar for their last documentary American Factory are following it up with a breezy and informative archive-driven film highlighting the fight for women's equality in the workplace - a battle that the film makes clear is far from over.

The US 9to5 movement - which would go on to inspire the Jane Fonda comedy 9 to 5 - provides the film with a focal point as it zooms in as the Sixties ave way to the Seventies without any signs of improvement in terms of working pay and conditions for the women who made up 70% of that area's workforce. The situation in the office was a reflection of broader sexists attitudes in society. As one of the women interviewed here recalls her father telling her: "Girls who are walking encyclopaedias should remember that reference books are never taken out."

Copy picture

Women, broadly speaking, were being groomed by school and home for secretarial roles and there's a lot of by turns humorous and, when you think about it, rather depressing footage here, showing women practising "finger gymnastics" or sitting in serriedĀ ranks, clattering away on their typewriters. And, upon taking up those secretarial positions, they found themselves treated as a sort of hybrid human robot equivalent of a housewife and a slave, with a high tolerance of sexual harassmentĀ also expected in return for basic pay and a bunch of roses once a year. If they didn't like the terms, then they knew where the door was and they also knew they could be shown that, with no repercussions for the employer, just for falling pregnant. The film also makes clear that the situation was even more grim for women of colour, who often found themselves relegated to data entry floors.

The film comes together through a straightforward combination of talking heads and archival footage, as women including 9to5 founder Karen Nussbaum talk about the way in which they started out with a newsletter and gradually became increasingly organised. It's interesting to note that in addition to fighting the established patriarchy, they were also having to find ways to work around women's perception of what it meant to be "feminist", with many of those they were trying to galvanise viewing that as a dirty word, even though they held what would be considered strongly feminist views. The adoptions of words like "actions" rather than "protests" shows how language can be vital when bringing together, not to mention tactics such as asking women bring something to meetings to make sure they turned up.

It's also interesting to note the emphasis put on equality between white and black workers right from the moment the organisation was formed, something that faced a lot of latent opposition initially from many of the women they were targeting. Among the vital but lesser known names sits Jane Fonda - who talks about how the movement was instrumental to the making of the comedy 9to5 (I particular enjoy the fact that the title of the documentary scans nicely to Dolly Parton's title tune). Again, it's worth noting that "language" matters - with Fonda saying that they got their message across much more easily because of using comedy. This is, by its nature, an American story but the parallels with women elsewhere are strong.

There are plenty of triumphs big and small here but Reichert and Bognar also chart the women's setbacks, events that they still find emotional to talk about even today. The overwhelming arc here, however, is one of momentum that is still gathering to this day, spreading out from secretarial spaces to childcare and service industries. One day, one hopes the fight for equality will be something that is relegated to our history books but as end intertitles showing how much women earn in comparison to men, indicate, for the moment it's a battle that continues.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2020
Share this with others on...
Story of a Seventies movement that saw gender equality campaigning and workers' rights activism intersect.

Director: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Starring: Adair Dammann, Jane Fonda, Karen Nussbaum, Adair Dammann, Jane Fonda, Karen Nussbaum

Year: 2020

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2020

Search database: